Sticking close to the original 1984 Karate Kid blueprint that made Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita household names, this Will Smith-produced remake ups the stakes by moving the action to China. Casting Jackie Chan as Mr. Han, the martial arts master (disguised as apartment building maintenance man) who teaches his young charge Dre (Jaden Smith) how to fight, also lends an air of authenticity to the by-the-book narrative.
At well over two hours long, The Karate Kid feels bloated while still managing to leave dangling thematic threads. Dre’s mother Sherry’s (reliably well played by Taraji P. Henson) employment conditions in China, for which she abandoned the economic wasteland of Detroit, go overlooked. Director Harald Zwart (The Pink Panther 2) spends the film’s big budget like a drunken sailor but doesn’t dig deep enough into his characters’ motivations to make the film resonate with the passion it intends. For all of the time spent on Dre’s grueling training (Smith studied with the film’s stunt coordinator, Wu Gang, to prepare for the part), we never see the learning process take seed.
There’s a moment when Mr. Han takes Dre to visit the kung fu studio where the bullies that terrorize Dre learn under China’s billboard-advertised kung fu teacher Master Li (Rongguang Yu), a ruthless sifu who demands no mercy from his young students. Mr. Han brokers a deal with Master Li for the bullies to leave his sole student alone while Dre prepares to fight them in an upcoming tournament that will serve as the film’s climax. The scene opens a door for the short-tempered Master Li to demand an on-the-spot challenge for Mr. Han to fight him in the ring. That newbie screenwriter Christopher Murphey drops the golden opportunity to show how the humble Mr. Han would handle such a loaded physical contest flagrantly ignores Jackie Chan’s famous skill and makes you question the film’s veracity.
Obligatory visits to China’s magnificent Wudang Mountains and Great Wall give Mr. Han a chance to instill in Dre some philosophical teachings of kung fu while giving the audience postcard vistas to soak up. But even here the filmmaker lets slip the dramatic arc of the story as it applies to our young protagonist. For all of Smith’s charm, and he is a charming actor, the 11-year-old is not yet seasoned enough to pull off such a demanding performance. Macchio was 22 when he played the younger-looking Daniel Larusso in the original Karate Kid. Although he was still just starting out as an actor, Macchio had accrued enough life experience to fire your imagination.
Multicultural romance comes in the from of Dre’s schoolmate, a young classical violinist named Meiying (Han Wenwen), who nearly overpowers Smith whenever the two are on screen together. The heart-warming subplot gives the story its strongest hook and brings it into its most human terms. Meiying’s violin audition also delivers classical music into the film, and elevates the transference of cultural ideas at play.
The Karate Kid is an entertaining, if uneven, remake that features a far more advanced level of fighting skills than the original film did. However, the title is a misnomer since “karate” has nothing to do with the wushu style of kung fu on display.
If Chan and Smith fail to connect with each other, and with audiences, to the same degree that Macchio and the Oscar-nominated Morita did, then that’s to be expected.
The main problem is that this version doesn’t come from the heart, but rather from what can be gleaned and exploited. It’s an obfuscation that comes not from the performers, but rather the filmmakers who refuse to let the audience experience a simple interaction of emotion. It’s a classic example of too much and not enough.
The Karate Kid (PG) ★★★☆☆